Q. Does Judaism say anything about healthy living and exercise?
A. Definitely. Doing what is good for your body and soul is basic to Jewish thinking. This certainly includes physical exercise. An example is Psalm 19:6, which refers to “a strong man running his course”, though Jeremiah 9:22 warns against bragging about one’s strength.
It is unlikely that girls and women took part in athletics for reasons of modesty, and indeed men too were criticised in Hellenistic times for playing games naked (the term “gymnastics” is from the Greek gymnos, naked).
Various kinds of exercise are known to the Talmud and later rabbinic literature, and even in the constricted conditions of the ghetto people still played ball games and other sports and exercised their body. However, moral and intellectual strength were praised over physical, and the codes of Jewish law urge a person to be strong like a lion to rise in the morning for the service of God.
In the early days of modern Zionism, emphasis was placed on exercise, but there were controversies as to what exercise was permitted on the Sabbath. Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of the Holy Land, denied that he had given permission for football on Shabbat.
Though there are Jewish sports carnivals in many countries – including the Maccabiah in Israel – and Israel takes part in the Olympics, there are moral problems with making sport into a virtual deity and attaching a commercial dimension to exercise and sport. Judaism obviously disapproves of some people limiting their exercise to spectatorism and card-playing. One of the best ways of exercising one’s body is walking, and we can all do more of it.
Moses Maimonides, doctor as well as rabbi, devotes much of his writings to leading a balanced life, taking care with one’s diet, sleep, bodily habits and mental pursuits including music, and says that keeping oneself in health and vigour is the will of God.